Poetry for Easter Monday: Seven Stanzas for Easter by John Updike

Fr. Jonathan's Blog

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of…

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Named, known, and loved by the Risen Christ: A Sermon for Easter, 2018

   Vilas Memorial Window, Grace Episcopal Church

 

 I was fortunate as a college professor that I taught at small liberal arts college where the number of students in my courses never exceeded 30. This was back before the age of smart phones and our department had a camera that some of my colleagues used on the first day of class to take photos of their students so they could put faces to names more quickly.

In my own experience, I learned that if I called the roll for two weeks, by the end of that time, I would know the students’ names by heart. Of course, they made it easier for me because they always sat in the same seat in the room. It would often happen that I would encounter a student on the sidewalk or in the library two or three years after I’d had them in class. I could recall where they sat in the room, what their final grade was, but often their name would be a complete mystery. Usually, several nights later I would suddenly wake up and there it was, on my lips, the name of that student.

The same thing happens at church, of course. If you’ve visited a few times, it’s likely I’m going to remember your face—but unless I see your name written out, it will take quite some time for me to remember it. There are also some people who come regularly whose name I don’t know—often, it’s because they want to remain invisible, or unnoticed. And then there’s the phenomenon of me walking into a restaurant or grocery store out of uniform, and encountering someone from church or someone I know from some other official capacity. They’ll take a second look, a puzzled expression comes on their face, and finally, I will end the suspense. Without a collar, it’s as if I’m in disguise (well, to be honest, sometimes I am in disguise).

While there are some places, and some groups, where we want to remain anonymous, there are also times when, as the theme song to the 1980s sitcom Cheers, put it: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”

That moment in John’s gospel where Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name is intimate, dramatic, and revelatory. It’s a moment captured in the image on today’s service bulletin, courtesy of a last-minute request I made to our Communications Coordinator, Peggy Frain, a photo of one of the panels from the Vilas Window which is to my right.

But let’s step back a moment and explore this wonderful story in greater detail. The Gospel of John is wonderful, perplexing, challenging, at times, infuriating. It provides us so much imagery, so many ideas, tantalizing nuggets of information that it’s easy to get caught up in the detail and over interpret, or read too much into relatively minor points. Still, there is so much here—first, unlike in the other gospels where Mary Magdalene is accompanied by other women, and they have a set purpose in mind, anointing Jesus’ body with burial spices, in John, Mary comes alone, and for no particular purpose (Nicodemus took care of the embalming earlier).

In the other gospels, the women come at the break of day, here Mary comes at night—which reminds us of other nights in the gospel, the night early on when Nicodemus came to Jesus; the night a few days earlier, when Judas left Jesus and the others on his mission of betrayal; the night or darkness, throughout the gospel that stands in contrast to the light of Christ. We might infer that Mary herself is coming in the night, because she doesn’t know the light…

Then there’s the footrace between Peter and the beloved disciple, a race one by the other disciple, but he waits, and lets Peter enter first. There is the careful detail describing how the linen grave clothes are arranged, and the observation that the beloved disciple sees and believes, though what precisely he believes isn’t clear.

But back to Mary. After Peter and the Beloved Disciple go home after their morning run, probably stopping for coffee along the way, Mary stays behind in the garden, overwhelmed by grief. Probably, she’s still struggling to understand what’s happened, not quite believing that the tomb is empty. For the first time, she decides to look inside for herself, perhaps wondering what the other disciples had seen when they entered. Instead of grave clothes, she sees two angels who ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Mary’s response is partly bewilderment, partly a declaration of faith. While she can’t make sense of the scene in front of her, by refering to Jesus as her Lord, she proclaims her belief that, all evidence to the contrary, Jesus is (or was) the Son of God.

In the middle of her encounter with the angels, Mary senses another presence behind her and turns. John puts it succinctly, and lets we the readers in on the secret before Mary figures it out: “…saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.” We know it’s Jesus, and John writes it in such a way that we want to know how or when Mary will figure it out.

Jesus calls her by name and the eyes of her soul are opened. She recognizes him and calls him, “Rabbouni” Teacher. It’s a poignant, powerful moment, and it’s not just about Mary finally figuring out who Jesus is. Rather, when he calls her by name, he tells her who she is, and their relationship is restored and deepened. Mary is known and loved by Jesus and when he calls her by name, she enters into that love and knowledge.

We live in a world in which our lives are played out for the world to see. We share intimate details and photos of ourselves on facebook or instagram; we are connected to people across the globe via twitter and engage in debate and controversy with people we’ve never met face to face. Our personal details are mined for our political and shopping preferences and our efforts to maintain personal privacy rarely succeed.

Still, in all of that, the intimacy we so often desire remains elusive. Our mobility, jobs that require our attention and focus far beyond forty hours a week, the temptations of social media, mean that our relationships are tentative, often shallow, temporary. We want to hide so much of ourselves from others, out of fear or shame.

“Mary,” Jesus said. And in that instant, the veil that separated the two of them in the garden fell away and Mary saw her Lord. He called her by name, and not only did she recognize him, she also came to understand and know herself, in relationship with Jesus, and known, and loved, by him.

The Risen Christ calls us by name, knows us by name. When we hear his voice, we begin to know ourselves and are invited into relationship with him, to become his.

The Risen Christ stands before us in the garden. The Risen Christ comes to us in bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast. The Risen Christ encounters us in the community gathered to hear the proclamation of the Word. The Risen Christ encounters us in the faces of the outcast, the homeless and hungry, the widow and orphan, in immigrants, prisoners, the LGBT community.

The Risen Christ calls us by name, inviting us into relationship with him. He invites us to bring all of our baggage, all of our wounds and scars, all of our sins and brokenness. When we hear his voice, and answer his call, we become whole and healed, loved and known by him. May the sound of his voice fill you with joy, heal your brokenness, dry your tears. May we all know the joy and love of the Risen Christ. Thanks Be to God!

 

 

Silence and Resurrection: A Sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter, 2018

 

“… they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mk 16:8)

Terror and amazement, fear and silence. The silence of the tomb; the silence of Holy Saturday, when the earth goes still, Jesus in his grave.

Silence. Think of all the ways people are silenced—witnesses to oppression or violence, their testimony quashed by the powers that protect the status quo. All the women whose experience of sexual abuse and sexual harassment has been silenced by bullying, or threats, or pay-offs. The silence of victims, whose voices were, are, suppressed. The voices of prophets, who were silenced, like Martin Luther King, jr, assassinated almost 50 years ago today.

In Mark’s gospel, there is silence. There is the silence Jesus commands repeatedly when people he has healed, or evil spirits want to declare the Son of God. There is the silence he commands after the Transfiguration, as he, Peter, James, and John come back down from the mountain after their vision of Moses and Elijah. There is the silence of Jesus, when he is brought before the Chief Priests and he is accused of blasphemy. There is Jesus’ silence, when he stands before Pilate, and Pilate asks him about the charges against him.

And there is the silence, the silence of the women, who fled in terror and amazement.

An empty tomb, a message that Jesus is not here he is risen and he will meet you in Galilee, and then the women depart in fear and amazement and silence.

And nothing else. No miraculous appearance, no reassurance from the risen Christ, no sending out. Just an empty tomb, a command to go to Galilee, fear, and amazement, and silence.

Like so much of this gospel, from the very beginning right through to the crucifixion, it leaves us with few concrete answers, little certainty and no reassurance. We are left hanging, wondering. Like the women, we are fearful and silent.

An empty tomb, fear, amazement, silence.

Can you imagine those women, who had come with Jesus and the other disciples from Galilee. Women, and men, who had pinned all their hopes on this teacher. They had seen him heal people, cast out demons. They were with him along the road from Galilee. They heard him proclaim the coming of God’s reign, a new way of being in the world. They had watched in amazement as he forgave sins, ate with tax collectors and sinners, confounded the religious experts.

They may have had questions, all of them, about what it all meant, but they knew one thing, when they got to Jerusalem, something amazing, something big would happen.

And in Jerusalem, all signs pointed to that cataclysmic event. The triumphal entry, the debates in the temple with the authorities. Jesus running circles around them, embarrassing them publicly, the crowds delighted with what he said and how he bested his opponents.

Then it all came to an end, an arrest by night, a staged trial, and an execution by Rome. It was all over, except the grieving. All the men had fled or were laying low, fearful that their Galileean accents would bring them under suspicion from Roman troops and the religious authorities. So the women could stand near the cross bearing witness to Jesus’ death, and then watch as others buried him, and could come to the tomb to finish the embalming process and above all, grieve.

To this point, women had been Jesus’ most steadfast supporters. One had even been commended when she anointed him a few days earlier. Jesus said that she was doing it because she knew what was going to happen to him. Others had accompanied him, provided for him and the others along the way.

But the final mystery of the story, the final question Mark leaves is this. The women fled in terror and amazement, and told nothing to anyone for they were afraid. That’s another one of those ironic statements of which Mark is so fond. After all, if they told nothing to anyone, where did he get the story? Where did he, or anyone else hear of the empty tomb? How did they know to go on to Galilee to meet the risen Christ? Of course, they told someone, they must have, else Mark would not have written his gospel. If they had not told anyone, we would not be here!

That’s the line I’ve used repeatedly over the years—in sermons, bible studies, when quizzical, doubtful students asked me whether Mark could have ended the gospel this way, or whether those additional verses in chapter 16, verses that were clearly added later, were in fact a better ending to Mark’s gospel.

Tonight, I want to reflect on something else, on the women’s fear. Why were they afraid? Were they frightened of the empty tomb? Of the young man who appeared there?

Think about it. Whatever fears they might have had, they were brave enough to stand by publicly and watch Jesus die. Sure, they were “just” women, less threatening to Rome, but at the same time, they were his followers, his disciples, and the Romans must have known that. However afraid they may have been of Rome, of the religious authorities, they were brave enough to come out, early in the morning on the first day of the week, to come to the tomb.

We can think of this as their final act of love and devotion. They were performing their duty as Jesus’ loved ones, to perform the ritual anointing that was associated with burial. Caring for him, loving him, they came to the tomb, to do all those loving, intimate things, that human beings have done to their loved ones’ since the beginning of the species, the beginning of culture, to prepare their bodies for passage to the next life.

And then, suddenly, everything has changed. The body they were expecting to anoint and embalm was gone, and they were told, “He is risen!”

What if their fear was not about what had happened, but due to their uncertainty about what would happen next? What if they were afraid, not because of Jesus’ arrest and execution, but because they couldn’t understand the empty tomb and the young man’s words, He is raised from the dead.”

What if their fear had mostly to do not with the fact that their hopes were dashed by Jesus’ crucifixion, but by the miracle of resurrection?

We know the story; we know how it turns out, we know all the ways it’s been explained and interpreted over the centuries, and we’re all so familiarized to spectacular events by Hollywood special effects and computer generated imagery, that the otherness, the strangeness, the complete surprise of resurrection is hard for us to imagine.

To have our world blown open, our perspective transformed, our expectations upended—to have all that? Can we imagine that?

Can the cynicism, anger, and fear of our age be overwhelmed by the miracle and reality of resurrection? That the suffering of Jesus, the obedience and love that brought him to the cross, that made him just another victim alongside the hundreds of thousands, millions, perhaps who fell victim to Rome’s power, ended, not in defeat, death, and silence, but in something quite unexpected quite new.

The resurrection was so unexpected, that how could one respond in any other way than fear? It was proof, not just that God was vindicating Jesus, that God had intervened on Jesus’ behalf, just at the moment of greatest fear and despair. It was, is proof, that God is making things new, that God’s power and love are transforming the world, bringing about a reign of justice and peace.

They may have fled from the tomb in fear and amazement, and told no one, but in the end, they did tell what they had seen. Thanks be to God. Their fear was overcome by joy, and the good news burst forth from their lips. May our silence and fear also give way to joy, and may we also shout out the good news: Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Poetry for Easter: Easter Wings by George Herbert

Easter Wings

By George Herbert

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
      Though foolishly he lost the same,
            Decaying more and more,
                  Till he became
                        Most poore:
                        With thee
                  O let me rise
            As larks, harmoniously,
      And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

 

My tender age in sorrow did beginne
      And still with sicknesses and shame.
            Thou didst so punish sinne,
                  That I became
                        Most thinne.
                        With thee
                  Let me combine,
            And feel thy victorie:
         For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Poetry for Easter Monday: Seven Stanzas for Easter by John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

John Updike, 1960.

Early on the first day of the week: A Sermon for Easter, 2017

 

On Sunday mornings, I usually leave the house by 6:15 am. I’ve come to appreciate the way the light changes at that time of day throughout the year. In December and January of course, it is fully dark at that time of the morning but if it’s a clear day, by late February, I can see the beginnings of the sunrise.

Sunday mornings are quiet times in downtown Madison. Most of the traffic lights are flashing. One sees the occasional student walking home after a night out, making what’s come to be known as “the walk of shame.” There are people on their way to work at the hospitals, delivery drivers with newspapers; and the like. I especially enjoy taking note of the traffic counter on the bike path at Monroe St and Regent. It’s usually still in the single digits at that time of the morning. As I drive, I’m usually thinking about the morning ahead, worrying about my sermon, whether I’ve worked myself into a dead-end and have time to write myself out of it before the 8:00 service. Continue reading

Descending Theology: The Resurrection by Mary Karr: Poetry for Easter

Descending Theology: The Resurrection

BY MARY KARR

From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in—black ice and squid ink—
till the hung flesh was empty.
Lonely in that void even for pain,
he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist
of his heart began to bang
on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled
back into that battered shape. Now
it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.